May 26, 2017


by Sharanya Pillai

AFTER the 2001 General Elections (GE), there was the “Super Seven”, or what The Straits Times then described as “the circle of high-fliers fast-tracked into high political office”.

They were then fresh faces: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Mr Cedric Foo, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Mr Raymond Lim, Mr Ng Eng Hen, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan. Today, we know them as past and present flagbearers of the G. Except for Mr Foo, who did not hold political office after 2005, and Mr Lim, who left the fray in 2015.

Now, over a decade later, there are seven again.

The Middle Ground needs your support to continue serving up credible, balanced and independent news. Help us make a difference by being our patron! Thanks!

This time, the MSM has settled on a broader catchphrase: the 4G, or fourth generation of leaders, who were elected in the 2011 and 2015 GEs. Among the newly-minted ministers are Messrs Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat, Desmond Lee, Ng Chee Meng, Ong Ye Kung, Tan Chuan-Jin and Lawrence Wong.

But the 4G batch extends well beyond the superstar shortlist. A count by The Middle Ground found that over a third of all political office-holders – including Ministers of State, parliamentary secretaries and mayors – are new kids on the block.

As represented in red above, the 4G makes up about 34 per cent of current appointees – a sure sign of rapid renewal, as compared to 2004, when Mr Lee Hsien Loong took over as Prime Minister (PM).

In our analysis, we considered those elected in 2001 and 2006 to be of the “3G” batch, while those elected in the 1980s and 90s are of the “2G” cohort. And of course, who else could be of the “1G” category other than the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was Minister Mentor from 2004 to 2011.

The 4G leaders are certainly making their presence felt, especially with PM Lee’s May Day announcement: the Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity (CSIP) is getting a new name and new blood. The rebranded Future Economy Council (FEC) comes with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat taking the reins from Deputy PM Tharman, as well as the addition of Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and departure of Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say. Both Mr Heng and Mr Wong were elected in 2011.

It is also interesting to note that the key members of the FEC mirror those of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), set up in 2016. Confusingly similar acronyms aside, both committees are almost exclusively made up of 3G and 4G members, with the exception of 2G stalwart and Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran.

Other 4G members climbing up the ranks include Dr Janil Puthucheary, Dr Koh Poh Koon and Mr Chee Hong Tat, who will be promoted to senior ministers in their current ministries. The promotion will now give them access to Cabinet meetings and perhaps open new pathways for their rise.

With the ascent of the 4G, it’ll be interesting to watch how the 3G batch progresses as well. Female representation has been wanting in Cabinet, but 3G Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo snagged a promotion to join Ms Grace Fu in serving as a full minister. Mrs Teo will be shadowing 2G minister Lim Swee Say.

PM Lee has made no secret of his plans for leadership renewal. The 4G batch provides a diverse pool age-wise, with a median age of 45 – the youngest being Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Health Amrin Amin, 39. Pundits are already shortlisting the likes of Mr Chan, Mr Ong and Mr Heng to be the next PM.

But if the Super Seven has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone chosen can stand the heat. It remains to be seen who stays and who leaves the kitchen.


Featured image by William Cho from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.


by Suhaile Md

This is the final article on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Over 20 participants attended all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here, and second one here.

AFTER the many stories shared in the past two sessions, it’s clear not everything’s hunky dory in Singapore when it comes to race. So what can we do about it? That’s what the final dinner on April 21 was all about.

The evening started with participants suggesting an issue they wished to tackle, after reflecting on the problems raised in previous sessions. Responses were then organised thematically and participants grouped themselves according to the themes that resonated with them the most.

The search for solutions ensued. Most ideas were not fully formed: You can’t solve decades long issues over dinner, can you? Still, the various groups presented their thoughts to everyone after. But by the end of the night, it was clear there were two ideas participants were excited about.

1. Get em young! 

Issue: Often the majority fails to realise racism exists because they are not at the receiving end of it. As a result they don’t see the disadvantages minorities face.

Solution: Organise an inter-school camp for secondary two student leaders. The core activity would be the privilege walk, followed by moderated discussions on race.

The walk starts off with participants standing abreast. They take a step forward or backward in response to questions on whether their race affected them positively or negatively. The aim is to visually represent the gap between the racial experiences of participants. Of how people of different backgrounds get different advantages regardless of merit.

The privilege walk was also done in the Channel News Asia documentary on race last year. Minister of State Janil Puthucheary was the host. Here’s the video.

The participants chose to work with Secondary two students because the 14 year olds would have had a year to settle into their schools. And should the student leaders want to, they will have a few years before their O-levels to work on creating impact within their schools.

Interestingly, four out of the five dinner participants who discussed this issue and thought of the solution were Chinese. It was also a Chinese participant who raised the issue of the dominant race not realising racism exists in Singapore. This solution was also the overwhelming favourite amongst dinner participants.

2. Attack racism with the funnies 

Issue: People tiptoe around the racial issues far too much. While sensitivity can be good, it should not get in the way of honest conversations. How do you tackle the issue if you’re too scared to talk about it?

Solution: Eh you racist ah? card game. The idea is that if you could lighten the mood around taboo topics, people would be more willing to talk about it.

It’s similar to the popular Cards Against Humanity (CAH) game. CAH has two decks of cards: One question deck, one answer deck. Every round, someone plays a question card and everyone else provides the funniest answer card from their hand. Except that the humour works because it violates social norms – most answer cards are highly inappropriate, taboo even. It’s funny because it’s transgressive.

Cards Against Humanity. Image by Flickr user Tom Bullock. CC BY 2.0.

Eh you racist ah? decks will be filled with statements that range from the blatantly racist like “X race is _____” to the subtly racist like “you are pretty for a X race”. The “winner” of each round will wear the cone of shame. This will be followed by a discussion on why the answer is racist. Essentially, said a participant, “the game is an icebreaker to talk about these taboo issues”.

The trick is that all the cards have racist answers. As players engage in the game, they will let their guard down and in choosing answer cards, they will have to tap into their existing racial biases. But because players can only use cards they are dealt with and not invent their own answers, no one can point an accusatory finger. It accords people a safe space to realise the racist stereotypes they have.

This of course assumes that reflective people will play the game and that they are generally ignorant, not consciously racist. It’s hard to say what, for lack of a better term, hard core racists would take away from this game.

3. The best of the rest

Most of the remaining ideas centred around raising awareness at the individual or society-wide level.

At the personal level, one group suggested creating safe spaces for victims to have a frank discussion with the person who made the racist remark. The group also pooled various suggestions on how to react during a racist encounter. For example, if the perpetrator is aggressive, just leave or it may escalate the matter. If someone holds on to racist or ignorant views, engage the person another time instead of vilifying. The aim is to change mindsets, not demonise.

At a broader level, one group thought of media campaigns. Another group decided to zoom in on educating the public on how to critically assess the online content they come across. For example, being able to distinguish fact from opinion, or being able to see issues beyond a racial lens, or being equipped to recognise and deal with their own biases.

Interestingly, throughout the night, there was only a brief mention of removing the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (CMIO) classification. Neither was there any chatter on affirmative action for greater representation at leadership levels nor was there talk on the Presidential Elections later this year, which is reserved for a qualified Malay candidate (read more here).

Instead it seemed there was an almost unconscious decision to work on solutions the individual could act on. Maybe it had to do with the question posed at the start of the dinner: “How would you tackle the issue?”

Not the G, not schools, not community leaders, but YOU. Maybe that’s a question we should all think about.


Featured image from TMG file.

Missed the dinner conversations on race and racism? Join the public sharing session on 20 May, 1pm. You will get to hear the stories from participants who attended the dinner series and explore race issues. Sign up here.

Also, join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

by Daniel Yap

THE focus of insurers has traditionally been on offering customers financial protection against unexpected life events such as illnesses. With good risk management and underwriting processes in place, it is generally sustainable for insurers to continue offering compelling insurance products that meet their customers’ protection needs.

But in this age of great convenience enabled by technology and with the ever-expanding food choices, it is becoming increasingly challenging for insurers to support the growing financial needs of their customers as a result of their unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

An insurer ultimately has a stake in its customers’ health, and they need to find a way to influence their customers’ lifestyle choices in order to stay ahead of the spiralling healthcare costs and ensure their long term sustainability.

How then can an insurer encourage healthy behaviours?

The human mind is wired to miscalculate decisions about long- and short-term gains (we explained it all here), like eating healthy or driving safely, are stymied by hyperbolic discounting and other types of short-term thinking. No Claim Discount for motor insurance, for example, don’t always account for the risks that others take since you only lose your discount after an accident occurs.

Discount programmes that some companies offer for healthy lifestyle choices are common, but these compete with other discount programmes from retailers or dining clubs that are designed to tempt you in the opposite direction.

But what if there was a more effective way to motivate healthy behaviours? AIA Vitality, for example, is one such attempt to help each party get the most out of their insurance – customers who upkeep a healthy lifestyle receive a variety of rewards as well as premium discounts, while those who have been less healthy would be motivated to move towards the same direction. The insurance company, on the other hand, can continue to offer customers adequate protection at affordable premiums.

The key is how AIA Vitality leverages science and technology to drive positive behavioural change by employing comprehensive tools to assess each member’s health and make tailored recommendations to help them become healthier. It also makes use of the principles of behavioural science and rewards members who are on track to becoming healthier.

The problem of hyperbolic discounting is also addressed more effectively – people tempted to veg on the sofa are given a very realistic weekly activity challenge (such as clocking 7,500 steps a day or checking in at the gym) to meet for a reward of a $5 voucher, which alone more than offsets the $3-a-month cost of being on the programme. The company partners with supermarket chain Cold Storage to offer cash back rewards worth up to $160 each month for healthy food items. Add to that a range of discounts and tie-ups with healthy partners and you have a much more holistic approach for tackling unhealthy living.

But why would an insurer give you $5 a week and more for something that you only pay $3 a month for? That’s because this method has proven to be a win-win for all – a study on Vitality members found that those who engaged in the programme were less likely to fall sick or be hospitalised for prolonged illnesses, resulting in an overall 14 per cent lower cost per hospitalised patient.

Those who ranked higher in the Vitality programme which divides members into Bronze, Silver and Gold statuses, saw a lower mortality rate in practically every age group. It’s a data-driven system that has been fine-tuned to benefit all participants.

Everyone gets what they want – customers enjoy rewards when they meet their health goals and pay less for their insurance as they become healthier. AIA Singapore, on the other hand, gains from healthier customers who will help to ensure that insurance remains affordable for all.

The end result is a more effective model than simply offering financial protection- by driving behavioural and lifestyle change, insurers like AIA Singapore are now able to keep their customers healthier, lower premium costs and stay sustainable in the long run: what the company calls “shared value for health”.


Featured image from TMG file.

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

by Suhaile Md

PRIVATE Educational Institutes are, well, privately funded. No G subsidies in other words. Which means it can ill-afford to continue with programmes that are irrelevant to students. Otherwise it would die off.

“We really look at what the market is looking for, what students are actually also looking for in terms of academic programmes, said Dr Michael Cope, Director of Studies at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF). So it’s a balance really between the kind of knowledge expected by the job market as well as what students expect to learn. So far, it has aligned well.

LSBF offers 55 different courses in fields like law, hospitality, banking and finance, logistics, and business among others. Qualifications range from preparatory courses to highly ranked post-graduate and masters courses like the MSc Finance degree from the Grenoble Graduate School of Business. But most are diploma and advanced diploma courses.

Which is why there’s another factor that’s taken into consideration when developing the curriculum. Added Dr Cope: “To a certain extent you’re looking at progression as well… if students want to continue and eventually want to end up towards a degree you’ve also got to look at the content.” In other words, the diploma courses LSBF designs also fulfil university entrance requirements of LSBF’s university partners.

There’s a limit to how responsive curriculums should be to current trends however. Not because schools don’t want to, but because “you’re talking about underpinning knowledge”, said Dr Cope.

For example, “there’s new areas in marketing but, I still got a third edition of Kotler at home which I used donkey years back… except for the newer sections (on digital marketing), it’s more or less the same.” Dr Cope was referring to the widely-used Principles of Marketing textbook by Dr Philip Kotler. The 16th edition of the book was published in 2015.

The issue of “what should be in a programme and what shouldn’t be”, is really a balance of keeping fundamental knowledge and adding updated relevant information.

Which is why marketing students across the board take similar core modules. At the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) for example, undergraduates learn market research, consumer behaviour, and so on. Digital marketing is an elective at both Universities – not compulsory.

That’s what Dr Cope means by balancing fundamentals with new trends.

There are basically three categories of students at LSBF: part-time, full-time, and executives. Public universities tend to cater to full-timers, while a large proportion of part-time students are enrolled in private institutions. A drive by the G to get polytechnic and ITE students to sign up for the Earn and Learn programme is starting a small shift towards what is effectively an apprenticeship model.

Courses for executives tend to be short, modular courses, and it changes quite frequently according to market demands. These are usually a few days long. It deals with specific skills like performance management and appraisals or effective communication for accounting professionals.

Most of the part-time and full-time students are engaged in diploma courses. Whether part-time or full-time however, these students have the same learning outcomes, sit for the same exams, and are awarded the same certificates. What differs is the learning approach, to cater to their different needs.

The part-time student

Said Dr Cope: “Generally 90 odd per cent of our part-time students I would say… are studying because they want to maybe change their career or want to improve their job prospects.”

Like ACCA student Ms Anastasia Pauline for example. The 28-year old is an audit assistant at an accounting and audit firm. Her company encouraged – with some sponsorship even – her to study accounting soon after they offered her a permanent job there. Prior to that she was working for them part-time and only had basic knowledge of accounting.

She chose LSBF because the “class notes are very useful, and the lecturers are structured”, she said. Furthermore, lecturers “go beyond the call of duty” by staying past 10.15pm when part-time classes end just to answer students’ queries.

They understand the demands of the working student and work around it. For example, lessons for shorter topics are uploaded online, in video format, to free up space for classroom teaching on harder, longer topics. Even these lessons are recorded in audio and uploaded just in case students miss class due to work commitments.

But that’s also possible, said Dr Cope, because “part-time students, they are generally quite motivated, they’ve got a specific goal, they’re quite clear in terms of why they’re doing it (studies).” In fact, although top scorers tend to come from full-time classes, the passing rate amongst part-time students is higher than full-time students, he added.

The full-time student 

“Our full-time students are a bit of a different target market,” said Dr Cope. “They are typically students coming out of high school so they really don’t know what they want… they generally don’t have the learning skills.”

Additionally, “employers will tell you that constantly they get students who come out of the Universities and pretty much they’re useless when they walk into the office…they don’t know how to interact in the office, they can’t produce reports, they can’t do basic research, their writing skills are horrible… they are actually like fish out of water.

“So we end up having to pump in quite a lot of effort to develop independent learning skills to our full-time students which we generally don’t have to do with our part-time students.”

But do the students actually pick up such skills in the end? Ms Cho Yebeen at least, agrees. The 22-year old is a full-time student enrolled in the English language course.

Her classwork is intense. She has tests every week. Ms Cho’s tested on the 60 new words she’s supposed learn weekly, then there’s the grammar test and reading test as well. But that’s what you would expect in most English language courses.

At LSBF though, she has to do research, write argumentative essays, and make presentations on various topics throughout her two month term. Topics like globalisation, childhood education, and environmental issues, among others, are discussed.

It was challenging but the results are undeniable. “In two months,” said Ms Cho, she went “from not speaking a single sentence of English to being fluent now”. But “still a little unconfident”, she added sheepishly. The Korean student wishes to go for undergraduate studies in business overseas but she felt she needed to improve her English language skills before embarking on it.

LSBF it seems is not alone in observing the need to develop basic skills like writing and research. NUS revised its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) curriculum last year. All freshmen must now take two writing courses – academic writing and public writing – to develop critical thinking, and clear communication skills.

Students from other NUS faculties learn writing and critical thinking through general education modules. Engineering student Mr Naowed Abeer for example took the module“Public Persona and Self-Presentation”. The 22-year old freshman said he had to submit three essays which are graded. Research and analysis was required every time he wrote an essay.  Before the final submission, his lecturer would critic his drafts and guide him on how to organise his words for clarity of argument and expression.

When asked if he thought such modules better prepared him for the working world, Mr Abeer said it helps to a certain point. But there’s no substitute for actual work experience.

During his National Service (NS) stint in the Civil Defence Force for example, he was put in charge of projects with minimal guidance, and no prior experience. The hardest part was identifying blind spots he was not even aware he had. It was like trying to imagine a colour he had never seen. Learning to deal with such situations is something that “cannot be taught in the classroom”, said Mr Abeer.


This article is the second of a three-part series in collaboration with LSBF. Read the first article here.


Featured image by LSBF

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.


by Sharanya Pillai

WHEN it comes to building their love nest, it seems like young Singaporean couples prefer the tried and tested – even if it is more expensive.

Last year, one in five first-time HDB buyers opted for resale flats over new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats, The Straits Times reported yesterday (May 3).  This is nearly twice the number of buyers who did so in 2012.

Thus far, HDB has reserved 95 per cent of BTO flats for first-time buyers. Heavily subsidised, these flats are often considered the most financially prudent option for first timers, especially since they come with a fresh 99-year lease, experts told The Middle Ground.

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.

But a desire for familiarity and a shorter waiting time are driving more young Singaporeans to the resale market, noted OrangeTee’s head of research and consultancy Wong Xian Yang.

This trend is set to continue, with stable prices in the resale market and more subsidies from the G, Mr Wong added. This year’s Budget, for instance, raised the CPF Housing Grant for resale flats for first timer couples, allowing them to enjoy up to $110,000 in total subsidies. Meanwhile, the supply of potential resale flats in 2016 was also 80 per cent more than the previous year.

“Since 2013, HDB resale prices have come down by about 10 per cent. People are more confident that the prices [have] stabilised and should not correct further. And so with more grants, many feel that resale prices are at affordable levels at the market rate,” he said.

Seems straightforward enough – why spend three years waiting for a BTO, when you might be able to move into a furnished flat with less hassle and more subsidies?

But there are more trade-offs to mull over. If you want to know what’s in this for you, here are the key factors to consider:

1. Do you want a ‘forever’ home or a stepping stone?

BTO flats come with 99-year leases, meaning that the flat can last a lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped young couples from paying more for resale flats with shorter leases, even at the risk of outliving their homes.

This trend prompted Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong to warn against assuming that all old flats will be covered by Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) – which allows owners to move to a new home with a fresh 99-year lease, along with monetary benefits.

Those who purchase old resale flats may also face difficulties trying to sell it off in future, reckons ERA Senior Division Director Alex Lim. “The demand pool for these flats among the next group of potential buyers is smaller, because younger buyers are already eliminated. So that is something to bear in mind,” he said.

OrangeTee’s Mr Wong agreed that the move has its risks: “Some couples may speculate that the value of an old flat will keep going up. But of course, there are always uncertainties.”

Ultimately, it depends on buyers’ long-term plans for the flat – whether they see it as more of a place to settle in for a few generations, as an investment to earn good returns on, or just to live in it before moving into more high-end property.

2. Postcode envy: Are some locations better than others?

Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Units at the Pinnacle@Duxton became eligible for resale last year
Source: Photo by Shaun Danker

If location is a priority, the resale market offers more options than others. This is probably one of the biggest draws for young couples, who often want to live near good schools, and sometimes even upmarket locations, said PropNex Key Executive Officer Lim Yong Hock.

Units at the Pinnacle@Duxton, which just became eligible for resale last year, is especially popular among couples with higher income.

For the majority of young families that are “just starting out in life”, living close to their parents is a key consideration, Mr Lim added. Filial piety aside, first-timers are also drawn by a $20,000 Proximity Housing Grant (PHG) for buying a resale flat near their parents. The scheme, implemented in 2015, could be another “pull factor” towards the resale market, he said.

But the locations of new BTO projects may bring back some first-timers, Mr Wong noted. While earlier projects were in far-flung, newer estates like Punggol, the latest batch of BTO flats are in mature estates, like Kallang, Bedok and the Bidadari development in Toa Payoh. With more of these developments, demand trends could change again.

ERA’s Mr Lim sees more young clients attracted to BTO flats because of lifestyle factors: “The millennials go for BTOs because the flats are new and the community is new. Everyone is of the same age group. They’re looking for something brand new and affordable, and that’s the ultimate appeal of BTOs.”

3. Money over matter

Ultimately, for those starting out in life, finances are front and centre. While BTOs are generally the cheaper option, due to zero Cash Over Valuation, resale flats are becoming just as affordable thanks to the latest slew of G grants.

Effective from Feb 2017, the cap for CPF housing grants for resale flats was raised from $30,000 to $50,000 for first-time families buying four-room or smaller flats, and to $40,000 for those buying flats with five rooms or more. Other existing incentives include the Additional Housing Grant, which provides up to $40,000, and the $20,000 PHG. With these perks, the price gap between BTO and resale flats has narrowed.

But this is not necessarily the case in popular mature estates, like Bishan, Queenstown and Clementi. Resale prices there remain steep, such as those in Clementi, which have crossed the million-dollar mark. While it is easy to be swayed by news reports of price trends, Mr Wong advises young Singaporeans to do their homework and monitor the data for themselves closely.

A 2015 survey by the MND, for instance found that Singaporeans tend to overestimate the price of BTO flats. “The younger generation of buyers is very tech-savvy, so they can easily check out the HDB website to know the latest prices, and avoid these mistakes,” he said.

Meanwhile, PropNex’ Mr Lim thinks that families on a tight budget would generally be better off opting for a BTO instead. “My advice for any young couple would still be go back to the affordability. You may find a very good location, but at the end of the day, you have to slog your life away to pay the instalments.”

“Is it necessary? In life, there are also other important things, like making sure you can start your family.”


Featured image by Flickr user Erwin SooCC BY 2.0.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.


Hawker centre, food, eat

by Daniel Yap

We must steal other people’s lunches to be competitive, says PM Lee. The world is a dark, hungry place with no scruples. But the phrase started me thinking: where does lunch come from? Is there a lunch shortage? Are some people having five lunches while others have none?

ON LABOUR Day, I went down to my local market and ordered myself a nice bowl of bak chor mee, found myself a table and sat down. I thought: well, a nice cold drink would hit the spot, so off I went to the drink stall. When I got back, someone had stolen my lunch.

It was the guy from the nearby rental block who was a familiar sight around the neighbourhood. He always seemed hungry, hanging around the food centre asking for a free kopi or a bite to eat. Often, the hawkers would be generous and feed him for free. Today, it seemed, he had decided it was my turn to bless his soul.

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.

Stunned and somewhat offended, I looked over to the next table, where the obese neighbour from Block 5 was stuffing his face with his third helping of Nasi Lemak Set G (tambah everything). Our eyes met, as he drooled a few fragrant grains from his overfull mouth, but he quickly turned away to stare at his food, as if to say “not my problem”. Clearly the problem was mine.

“Eh hello, that’s my lunch.”

“Yes, and now it’s mine! Good, right?” the hungry man mumbled as he fumbled with my chopsticks (ok, not my chopsticks: the stall’s, but he TOUCHED them – desecration).

“Hey, you cannot just anyhow steal people’s lunch, you know?”

“You left it here, mah! Anyway, you see that guy there, he went to buy drinks – go eat his Hokkien mee.”

“But I wanted bak chor mee for lunch!”

“Lunch is scarce, bro, going to be come more scarce. Unemployment going up. You got to learn to compromise.”

“You stole my lunch! I paid for it!”

“Okay lah, I play fair. If I stand up, you can steal it back.”

I was on the verge of attacking him with a Chinese soup spoon when the bak chor mee uncle piped up. “Eh, young man, you give him eat, ok? Uncle make another one for you. Up-sai to big bowl some more.”

“But uncle, how can he like that?”

“Every day he come here, every day somebody give him food. You see everybody eating here, they think there is only one lunch for them. But when you are the one making the food, you know behind still got a lot of lunch left. Is not jiro-sum game one.”

I paused, stunned.

“You see, I am entrepreneur one. As long as end of the day I make money, it’s okay. I can come out how many bowls of bak chor mee, never mind. But if you start fighting in front of my stall then I got no business to do. Maybe you fight for your lunch and you win, you eat, but in the end nobody else get to eat my bak chor mee; next door the roast duck also cannot sell.”

He pushed a massive bowl of noodles into my hands. “Eat, eat! Not everyday I give you eat, but I tell you, lunch is got a lot one.”

I think it must be nice to be him. He can eat his own lunch. As many bowls as he wants. But can man live by bak chor mee alone?


Featured image by Flickr user Tiberiu Ana. CC BY 2.0.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.


IF RUNNING a country is like building a house of cards, then perhaps there is one card that is more crucial than the others: Religion.

Few other forces have the kind of power religion does – that can either uplift the masses or stir hate. In dealing with this, governments tend to take a tough stance. We saw this play out in Singapore, when an Imam was fined $4,000 and repatriated for making offensive remarks about Christians and Jews.

Many of the world’s biggest countries try to keep religion in check through warnings and restrictions, according to a report released by the Pew Research Centre on Apr 13. But where there is fear, others see opportunity – some politicians are using religion as their trump card in the road to power.

And the past month has brought us no shortage of instances where the ‘R’ word changed the way politicians govern and people vote.

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.


1. Jakarta, Indonesia: In Anies vs. Ahok, hardliners triumph

Newly-elected Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan addresses worshippers at a mosque. Image from Mr Anies Baswedan’s Facebook page.

In a tight race for the governor of Jakarta, the once-popular incumbent Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or ‘Ahok’, lost his seat to contender Mr Anies Baswedan. Being a Christian politician in a Muslim-majority country had already put Mr Basuki in a precarious position – receiving constant fire from hardliners against his leadership.

And the hate campaign eventually tipped his tightrope over, when Mr Basuki found himself before a judge, accused of blaspheming Islam. The damage was too great, and the votes swung in favour of Mr Anies, a moderate Muslim who has met with hardline Islamists.

The election has been widely regarded as a litmus test for pluralism in Indonesia, which till recently, has been regarded a role model for religious tolerance. But a growing conservative movement in the establishment may upset this.

According to the Setara Institute, which monitors civil freedoms in the country, acts of religious intolerance rose by nearly 15 per cent from 2015 to 2016. Over half of the cases implicated government and military officials.


2. Paris, France: Once taboo, religion is now a talking point

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Image by Flickr user Global Panorama. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The French have had a grand tradition of keeping religion strictly personal, and well away from the political arena. But in this year’s presidential election, there are new kids on the block – and new rules to play by.

Far right candidate Marine Le Pen has brought religion to the front and center of the debate stage, with her extreme views against Islam, Judaism and other minority religions. Ms Le Pen has compared Muslim prayers to the Nazi invasion, while her aides are accused of Holocaust denial.

Meanwhile, main contender Emmanuel Macron has issued a rallying cry for secularism – except that his voice is barely as loud as the rhetoric of Ms Le Pen. With the ongoing refugee crisis and spate of terrorist attacks across Europe, far-right views on religion are more popular than ever.

Whether France will face the same outcome as Jakarta remains to be seen.


3. Moscow, Russia: Ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Constitutional Court of Russia. Image by Савин А. С. from Wikimedia Commons.

“The supreme court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Ms Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Religious freedom in Russia is questionable and with the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses (April 20), hopes of religious freedom in Russia continue to fall short. Claiming more than 170,000 adherents in Russia, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a restorationist Christian denomination with beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity, including a denial of the Holy Trinity.

Russia’s supreme court has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group. The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.

Days after the imposition of the ban, Russia was labelled a “country of particular concern” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). It is the first time that Russia has been designated among the highest tier of violators of religious freedom. It joins 15 other countries, including Iran, Syria, Nigeria, Burma and China.


4. Beijing, China: Warning against “foreign infiltration” through religion

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image by Flickr user Michel Temer. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Communist party members must adhere to Marxist principles and remain “staunchly atheist”, President Xi Jinping insisted on Apr 24. It appears that China is clamping down on religious freedom in the country. To justify the clampdown, Mr Xi emphasised that China must be on guard against foreign infiltration through religion and stop “extremists” spreading their ideology.

The ruling Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but it keeps a tight rein on religious activities and allows only officially recognized religious institutions to operate. The Chinese government is increasingly concerned about the perceived growing influence by Islamists in the Xinjiang region. Officials there have tightened enforcement of regulations banning overt signs of religious observance, like veils or beards. Separately, some Chinese Christians say that authorities are limiting their activities and taking down crosses on churches in coastal Zhejiang province.

China has historically followed ancient religions like Buddhism and Taoism for about 2,000 years, according to China’s State Council. But the country’s belief systems have become increasingly diverse. According to a map published by Reuters in 2015, based on information from Professor Fanggang Yang, the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, China’s monotheistic religions, including Islam and Christianity, are beginning to occupy a significant proportion of the country.

Breakdown of Religion in China. Image by Reuters.


5. Ankara, Turkey: Religion propels Erdogan to victory

A 2016 pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul, Turkey. Image by Flickr user Mike Norton. CC BY 2.0.

On Apr 17, a slim majority of Turks granted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broad powers, including the autonomy to choose the majority of senior judges and absolute discretion in dismissing Parliament. The role of the Prime Minister will also be removed.

And for many Turks who voted in favour of the president, religion was a key factor. Since the end of World War I, Turkey has been a constitutionally secular state, meaning that even though 99 per cent of residents are Muslim, there is no official state religion. However, this has left some rural voters disillusioned, especially by rules that forbade women working in the civil service and military from wearing headscarves.

President Erdogan, the political protege of a former Islamist politician, lifted the headscarf restrictions, and has since taken the country in a different direction. Last year, the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate declared that it would be “illicit” for Muslims to celebrate the Western new year. Rules on alcohol consumption have also been tightened, a move that would have been unthinkable up till recently.

With the result, President Erdogan may remain in power till 2029.


Featured image by Flickr user Ben McLeod. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.



by Daniel Yap

UBER and Grab are going to ruin commuting for Singapore, says The Straits Times. I have to wonder who put that idea in its head. The paper points to the astronomical growth of market share, the growth across vertical businesses, and the desire to “make money” (oh, please) as reasons why commuters may be “taken for a ride”.

But wait, why do these things make one cry foul? Why warn of a dire future? All’s fair in love and war and business. If there’s a legal and ethical way to upset the status quo then, incumbent or newcomer, it is there for anyone to exploit.

Taxi companies – outmoded, complacent, inflexible – failed to capitalize. Someone else did. Uber began in the United States in 2010, and came to Singapore in 2013. Three years is plenty of time to realise that the taxi industry is being shaken up worldwide. Yet the incumbents did nothing.

Patrons of The Middle Ground enjoy priority access to our best stories. To become a patron, click here.

Where previously fleet size was the ultimate proxy for market share, it is now no longer as big a factor as it once was. The new measure of “who is the biggest” is efficiency – efficiency that attracts customers, drivers, and investors.

We, the customers, feel served, so we patronise. We, the drivers, feel adequately rewarded, so we keep driving.

Perhaps it is a familiar struggle for the print news industry – new technology redefines the hows and whens of a business, incumbents struggle to adapt, and new powers come to the fore. There is plenty of empathy, even from me. But empathy is not a defence for a poor argument.

Grab’s profits (although it currently appears to have none) would be taxed in Singapore. Temasek is a major investor. Why should we be afraid that it is a Malaysian company? And it is not even unusual that foreign companies that repatriate profits are welcomed to Singapore with open arms and set up multi-billion-dollar operations here with special concessions.

Singapore is an open, globally-connected economy. Perhaps we should ask why our large, local companies do not innovate, and do not then export that innovation abroad to repatriate profits. Instead many of our local companies sit at home, comfortable on a cushion of profits and market dominance that holds them back from innovation. Until it is too late and the rug is pulled.

And perhaps the day will come when Uber and Grab become the new incumbents like Comfort and SMRT, and lose sight of making customers or drivers happy, and focus too much on making investors happy. But I am confident that even if that day should come, and fares go up unnecessarily, and customers are not well-served, that day another company will come up and pull the rug from under their feet. Grab and Uber are proof of that.


Featured image from Grab’s Facebook page.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.




by Sharanya Pillai

AND now there are two. Five years ago, Singapore celebrated having a full female minister in Ms Grace Fu, who took the helm at the Prime Minister’s Office, and earned her own portfolio at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in 2015. Now, she has more female company in the Cabinet.

Yesterday (27 Apr), the Prime Minister announced that the Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo will be promoted to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Never have there been so many female office-holders in the G. Among the eight appointees are Ms Indranee Rajah, the Senior Minister of State at the finance and law ministries, and Dr Amy Khor, who is Senior Minister of State for health, and environment and water resources. Nearly a fifth of Parliament now consists of women. Now don’t forget to include Mdm Halimah Yacob, who is currently the Speaker of Parliament.

The Middle Ground needs your support to continue serving up credible, balanced and independent news. Help us make a difference by being our patron! Thanks!

In getting promoted, Mrs Teo and Ms Fu have broken the glass ceiling further for women in local politics. But there were others before them. We look back on four female politicians who were widely expected to become full ministers – one of whom reached the position, only to be defeated later.

1. Dr Seet Ai Mee: Much ado over hand-washing

In 1991, Dr Seet blazed her way into Cabinet when appointed Singapore’s first female Acting Minister for Community Development. Then 48, she had been one of only four female MPs.

A month later, she made another ‘first’ – but this time, was the first Cabinet member to lose her seat.

Her narrow defeat – by 1.4 per cent of votes – is often associated with a public gaffe. While campaigning in a wet market in 1988, Dr Seet washed her hands after shaking the hands of some stall owners. In a 2009 interview with Petir, Dr Seet said that she was simply washing off pork grease, in case she shook hands with Muslim residents later. But the imagery stuck, and dominated headlines when it was brought up again in 1991.

After the setback, Dr Seet joined the hospice movement.


2. Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon: Mentoring the young

Image from Mrs Yu-Foo’s Facebook account.

Like Dr Seet, Mrs Yu-Foo was one of a handful of female MPs in the 1980s. She entered politics in 1984, and with two other female PAP candidates, ended the 14-year absence of female politicians in the Parliament.

Mrs Yu-Foo went on to become the longest-serving woman MP, staying in the game for 27 years. In 2001, she became the first female mayor in the country. Three years later, she was promoted to Minister of State in the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

However, in 2011, Mrs Yu-Foo, then 61, called it a day for her political career. That same year, she told The Straits Times in an interview that one of her proteges, Ms Sim Ann, may be of ministerial material.


3. Dr Aline Wong: Return to academia

Elected alongside Mrs Yu-Foo in 1984, Hong Kong-born university lecturer Dr Wong similarly made her mark in local politics. In 1990, Dr Wong was appointed Minister of State for Health and Education. She was later promoted to Senior Minister of State in 1995.

But in 2001, aged 59, Dr Wong left the political fray to go back to academia. In 2015, she made headlines for becoming the first female chancellor in Singapore, after being appointed by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (then called the Singapore Institute of Management University).


4. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua: Defeat in watershed election

Image by Oh Jaehyuk from Wikimedia Commons.

Twenty years after the political defeat of Dr Seet, it seemed like history repeated itself in some ways. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Singapore’s first female full minister, lost her seat in the landmark 2011 General Elections.

Appointed Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, Mrs Lim had served as an MP for 15 years. In 2002, she was the first female Deputy Speaker of Parliament. Two years later, she became Minister of State for Finance and Transport, and in 2008 was promoted to Senior Minister of State.

But alongside then Foreign Minister George Yeo, Mrs Lim was blindsided by Aljunied voters’ support for the opposition. At 52, she decided to step down from politics.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Mrs Lim then mused: “[It] won’t be too long before another female full Cabinet minister is appointed.”

Seems like she was right.


Featured image by Teddy Sipaseuth from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.


by Bertha Henson

WHAT is the weight of public opinion? It is heaviest during election time, when everybody gets to vote. How they vote is science and for political parties and academics to interpret. Only the individual knows why he voted the way he did – and sometimes not even that.

Public opinion, that vague phenomenon, can be viewed in a positive way as reflecting the community sentiments which may or may not be based on rational grounds. Politicians know that they have to get public opinion on their side to be voted in or to simply garner support for an agenda.

Or, public opinion can simply be viewed as the baying of the mob. Whether you think it’s positive or negative depends on which side of the fence you are on. So if public opinion is aligned with your own views, it must be correct and something must be done about it. If it doesn’t, then those who hold such views are misguided, ill-informed or just plain idiots.

The Middle Ground needs your support to continue serving up credible, balanced and independent news. Help us make a difference by being our patron! Thanks!

When Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam talked to TODAY about the weight of public opinion in the review of laws, I did a double-take. It seemed odd to me that such a tough minister would consider public reaction a factor until I read this further along in the story: ‘’But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.’’

He’s speaking generally, he said in his rebuke of academic Donald Low.

As an example, he spoke of American Joshua Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor who had sex with two 15-year-olds and showed an obscene film to a six-year-old. Many saw the four year jail term as too lenient. Mr Shanmugam had directed his ministries to re-look this.

In the TODAY story, however, is this:

A deputy public prosecutor, who declined to be named, had reservations about reviews being announced soon after a case concludes in court.

“When the Government says these things, it ties our hands,” he said.

This is a pertinent point. Sometimes it’s not so much public opinion that matters – since they can always be dismissed – but the opinion of a powerful person.

The former G lawyer didn’t give an example but you wonder what prosecutors will do now since the minister announced last month that there will be a review of maid abuser penalties. This comes after a Singaporean couple was convicted for starving their maid. The man was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and a S$10,000 fine while his wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

Commentators are also waiting to see what sort of measures will be taken against so-called fake news, and announcement that came immediately on the heels of the G’s failure to get the courts to agree that it can use the Protection from Harassment Act.

Unlike past Home Affairs and Law ministers, Mr Shanmugam – who holds both portfolios – is well-known for speaking up about court cases.

And unlike members of the public who can face contempt of court charges, he said in Parliament last year (Mar 1), “public officials like myself can make statements if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police must be maintained.”  This is in response to public speculation that 14-year old Benjamin Lim had committed suicide as a result of police investigations.

There is also the forum of Parliament which conveys immunity to its members.

He has never been one to keep quiet.

Some examples:

a. Mr Shanmugam’s comments at a public forum in May 2010 on Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong sparked a judicial review of Yong’s clemency process. Mr Shanmugam said: “If Yong escapes the death penalty, drug barons will think the signal is that young and vulnerable traffickers will be spared and can be used as drug mules.”

Yong’s lawyer, Mr M Ravi, felt that Mr Shanmugam’s comments could prejudice the decision of the President to grant clemency. The review was dismissed in August 2010 because it was argued that – constitutionally – Cabinet, in which Mr Shanmugam is a member, could in fact advise the President on matters of clemency.

b. In April 22, 2015 he said the actions of the boy who attacked foreign worker to practice martial arts was “sickening conduct, the kind of conduct that you would not approve if somebody did it to animals.” Earlier that week, the boy was sentenced to 10 days jail. The Attorney-General Chamber’s appeal a few days later for stiffer sentencing was dismissed. You can say that the judge wasn’t influenced by what he said. But it does cast a pall over the verdict if it went the G’s way.

c. In April 2015, he came out strongly to castigate the man who slapped teen terror Amos Yee, saying in a Facebook post: “Rule of Law means respecting the legal process. If everyone starts taking the law into his or her own hands, then we will no longer be a civilised society. I hope that the attacker will be caught quickly, and is dealt with appropriately.”

He is right to warn against vigilante action, but it would have been better coming from the police. Because people would expect that the culprit, since he’s been the subject of ministerial comment, would be dealt with heavily by the courts. The man was sentenced to three weeks jail.

d. He nearly made a police report when Ms Sangeetha Thanapal misrepresented his comments online in August 2015. Her Facebook post was “inaccurate and seditious”, he said. But he later decided not to do so after meeting her as she had no ill-will. Ms Thanapal on her part apologised on Facebook, saying what she had posted earlier was “unjustified”.

e. More recently (Oct 22, 2016), he announced that he would be filing a police report over “completely false” allegations made by sociopolitical site States Times Review. The site claimed that Mr Shanmugam had said that “Eurasians are considered Indians” for Presidential candidacy and downplayed the chances of a Eurasian becoming the President.

In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam expressed shock that “such outright falsehoods” could be spread online.  A check by TODAY the day after his post found that no report had been filed yet. It is unclear if a report was eventually made.

Now, a minister making a police report carries a lot more weight than reports filed by ordinary people. Face it, not everybody’s opinion is equal.

It is correct that public opinion should play a part in our laws. Some archaic holdovers like the criminalisation of oral sex has been thrown out of the window and the death penalty is only mandatory for egregious cases. Marital rape might well make it into the books. These are a reflection of changing societal norms and expectations.

But what if some people think that the laws of defamation here are too strict? And that more young people are getting soft on drugs as was reported in MSM today?

Then a judgement call must be made about what is fair and what is right for Singapore. This is what we elected people for, as representatives of Parliament and not as delegates. We vote them to exercise their judgement on our behalf.

It’s not always public opinion that matters or has an impact, minister. It’s yours. If you’re carrying a big stick, maybe you should tread softly.


Featured image from Minister K Shanmugam Sc’s Facebook page.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.